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The staff of the energy commission has also raised other questions about many aspects of the operation, from the use of city-supplied drinking water for steam, to the visual pollution created by vapor plumes that could reach up to 300 feet in height and 600 feet in width. Even sans plumes, at 150 feet, or approximately eight stories, Nueva Azalea would be the tallest building in South Gate.
Both Communities for a Better Environment and the energy commission staff are concerned about Sunlaw's proposal to use pollution credits intended for volatile organic compounds to cover the plant's soot emissions instead. Because there is so much soot being generated in the L.A. basin, unused soot credits are hard to come by. Such swapping is, in some cases, permissible, according to the commission staff. Whether it will be allowed here, and to what extent, depends on how bad the soot problem is in Southeast L.A. and, the commission staff said in a recent report, requires further review. The health problems related to soot have been well documented, counters Fazeli, and allowing more of it would be a mistake.
Fazeli also points out that the proposed South Gate site, in the heart of Southeast L.A., is surrounded by other cities that are also economically underachieving, overwhelmingly Latino and heavily polluted. According to Sunlaw's own application, there are nine churches, three schools, four parks and a hospital all within a mile of the plant. A Weekly phone survey of 13 nearby cities found responses ranging from complete ignorance of the project to serious concern. The superintendent of schools for the city of Downey, which is just east of South Gate and within a few blocks of the proposed plant, sent a letter to the state commission expressing concern over the project. And the Downey City Council has hired an environmental consultant to assess the project's impact on their city. If Nueva Azalea moves forward, Downey, Cudahy, Bell Gardens and the rest of the nearby cities will get all of the pollution, and none of the financial benefits that make the plant so tempting for South Gate.
SOME ELECTED OFFICIALS WHO MIGHT BE EXPECTed to automatically reject the idea of building such a plant in an already environmentally degraded area have not.
The area's state senator, Martha Escutia, has endorsed the project and even allowed her photo to be used in a Nueva Azalea promotional brochure. Escutia's husband, campaign consultant Leo Briones, is running the Nueva Azalea public-relations drive. Escutia, who last year authored legislation to tighten pollution standards near schools, said she was impressed with the SCONOx data and that she had come out in support of the plant long before her husband was hired by Sunlaw. "Once the whole issue of power plants is demystified and people see that it's not a nuclear plant," she said, "I think people will see that it's a good project."
State Assemblyman Marco Antonio Firebaugh, who represents South Gate, has not taken a position on Nueva Azalea, but earlier this year he accepted a $25,000 contribution from Sunlaw to the California Friends Latino PAC, a political-action committee he controls. "Given the energy shortages we're facing, we need to do something about energy production," he said. Nonetheless, he said, he's asked the Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic at UCLA to review the Nueva Azalea application. "On paper, the project looks good. We need to make sure it lives up to its billing."
Even closer to home, only one of the five members of the South Gate City Council, Councilwoman Ruvalcaba, has come out in opposition to the project. The council has no say in the California Energy Commission's final decision on whether Nueva Azalea gets built. But given the city's demographics and the commission's federally mandated environmental-justice review, strong local opposition would be tough to ignore.
At a July 25 meeting, the council was set to consider a proposal by Ruvalcaba to let the residents of South Gate weigh in by placing an advisory vote on the November ballot. In a city where voter registration has increased more than 12 percent since the 1996 presidential race, those results could have given a good reading of community sentiment toward the plant. But before Ruvalcaba could make a motion on the November proposal, Mayor Hector De La Torre introduced a counter motion that the measure instead be put on the municipal ballot on March 6, 2001, the day before the staff of the California Energy Commission is slated to complete its final assessment of the project. (As is almost uniformly true, voter turnout for municipal elections in South Gate is just a fraction of that for general elections.) De La Torre argued that by March more information would be available about the project, and residents could make a better decision.
The city attorney suggested that the mayor's proposal be tabled until a future meeting, but De La Torre insisted on a vote. The measure passed unanimously. Then Ruvalcaba asked the council to consider her November proposal. De La Torre immediately objected, saying that the matter had already been decided. The city attorney concurred, and that was that.